Health authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have begun vaccinating 2.6 million children under five against polio and measles in three provinces, the health minister said Tuesday.
"The campaign concerns Kinshasa, Bas-Congo (both in the west) and Nord-Kivu (in the east) and is aimed at vaccinating 2.6 million children" in five days, Mopipi Mukulumanya told AFP.
Apart from the vaccination, each child will receive a dose of vitamin A and will be deloused with mebendazole, a medicine used to treat infestation by a range of worms.
The campaign will cost about four million dollars (2.7 million euros) and has been financed notably by the World Health Organisation, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the Japanese embassy.
After the first three provinces, the campaign will rotate around the other parts of the country, Mukulumanya said. The central African nation is the size of western Europe minus Scandinavia, with an estimated population of 66 million.
Polio was eradicated in 2000, but reappeared in the DR Congo in 2006. It is transmitted through the consumption of contaminated food and water. The virus is highly infectious and can easily overwhelm the immune system of those who have not been vaccinated.
The disease attacks the muscles and can lead to irreversible paralysis. The WHO estimates that one sick child can "contaminate 200 others."
A similar campaign has already been organised in Sud-Kivu province and parts of Burundi and Rwanda, across the DR Congo's eastern border, after the first polio cases for 10 years were confirmed in the northwest of Burundi, with a virus that originated in the DR Congo.
Congo's health minister said that the DR Congo had one of the highest infant mortality rates in the world, at 148 deaths among each 1,000 children up to the age of five. In September, Mukulumanya outlined plans to cut that rate by two-thirds by the year 2015.